I feel like I might have made a mistake leading things off with the best series about otaku consuming otaku culture. For every Genshiken out there, there are a handful of others that make being an otaku both obnoxious and painfully unfunny. You can probably guess which side this series falls into.
I, OTAKU, STRUGGLE IN AKIHABARA (Sota-kun no Akihabara Funtoki), by Jiro Suzuki. First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2007.
Sota is your ordinary, normal sort of high school kid for all appearances. He has a wide group of friends, a loving girlfriend, and is generally perceived to be a good-natured, popular person. The truth is that Sota is an otaku obsessed with a puppy-themed moe character called Papico. His secret search for the latest Papico figure leads him to a hole-in-the-wall shop called Otakudo Headquarters, which is run by the frantic Mano Takado. Mano makes it his mission to make Sato openly embrace his otakudom, whether Sota wants to or not. He harasses Sota's girlfriend, he ropes in Sota's friend Kenji into fandom, and even uses the two of them as part of a plot against another nearby manga store. In the middle of all this insanity is Sota, who finds himself struggling to find the balance between his fandom and his normal, everyday life.
The back cover of this series proclaims "Move over Comic Party! There's a new fandom comedy in town!" Well, that must be a backhanded insult towards Comic Party, because I'd hate to think there were two manga series about otaku that had an irritatingly manic and mad-cap sort of personality to make up for the fact that it's ultimately not funny at all.
That same personality cannot be applied to the lead. Sota is a purposefully blank character, meant solely to serve as the buttmonkey to all the events around him. His girlfriend is the only character who gets worse treatment from the story. At least Sota got a name; she never receives so much as that. She's also used and abused for a couple of quick jokes. The first is that every date she has with Sota inevitably turns into something Papico related. The other is that her moods are entirely dependent on Sota's ability to focus entirely on her. In fact, it seems wrong to call Sota the lead character because pretty much everyone in the story is there to react against the true driving force of this series: Mano.
Mano preaches the benefits of otakudom in the same manner an evangelist preaches the New Testatment. To him, otakudom is the One True Way, and anyone who compromises that belief for the sake of a social life or to hang out with a 3-dimensional girl is unworthy of his shop and his approval. Thus, it is Mano's efforts to get the latest, greatest merchandize or to make Sota jump through endless hoops to earn it that drives both the plot and the humor. It's a shame then that Mano is such a thoroughly unlikeable person. He's so obsessed with making others discover the otaku within that he actively ruins the relationships of anyone he targets. His standards as to what defines a 'true' otaku are as fanatical as they are arbitrary. He lords over his customers by dangling the latest DVD or figure in front of them, in much the same manner a person would dangle a Milkbone over a dog. It seems that Suzuka forgot that to create the sort of character one loves to hate, one has to give the character some sense of charm or humor. Mano possesses neither, and as such much of the humor in the plots he creates falls flat from the very beginning.
He's not entirely to blame for the lack of humor, though. This series fails in much the same way that Oreimo did. It's the same stupid joke about the seeming impossibility of being an otaku AND having something of a social life. As before, I get that Japanese culture sees a lot of popular media being childish and something to be set aside for adulthood, and that I'm coming at this from an American perspective where adults can enjoy the geekier side of media more openly. That being said, the jokes remain the same: they are still backhanded insults towards their target audience. It's making a mockery of otakudom, knowing full well that this series would only appeal to them. It's not asking them to laugh at the silly extremes of the fandom, but at those who would indulge them - i.e, their audience. Like Oreimo before it, I Otaku is laughing at its audience, not with them.
Oh, there's also an incredibly bizarre side story where the girlfriend tries to make some Valentine's Day chocolate for Sota with the help of two very random magical-girl fairies. These events come from pretty much nowhere and end only in confusion.
I don't think any manga series, much less Comic Party, has anything to worry about from I Otaku. Its wacky attempts at comedy ring false because the only character that isn't an empty shell is an irredeemable asshole, compounded by the fact that the story mocks the very people who would read it.
Suzuki's art is weird, angular, but full of energy. The character designs look almost slapdash, consisting of gangly points and huge, goofy expressions. The slightest hurdle or revelation is met with an over-the-top reaction that falls only slightly short of a Tex Avery cartoon. Those reactions come at the expense of...well, pretty much everything else, visually. The characters float about mostly blank white limbos, all while the panels take on some new crazy high or low angle meant to heighten the sincerity of the characters (and thus the jokes made at their expense). There is a palpable energy and wackiness to the art, and it might have worked better had the story not been so much of a dud in the first place.
I, Reviewer, struggled to get to the end of this volume, and was all too happy when I got there. There's plenty of energy in the art, but the jokes are one-note, lame and insulting, and all that wackiness becomes as grating as Mano is himself.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is complete in 4 volume. All 4 volumes are currently out of print.
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